Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Where's our Obama, in Canada or B.C.?

It's a disheartening contrast.
Take any moment of debate from the weekend legislative session on the Olympic athletes' village and contrast it with Barack Obama's inauguration speech.
Leave aside, for a few moments, the issues involved in the legislative session. The debate was the usual legislature mix of interruption, insult and vilification. Both sides, as usual, were to blame.
Not that legislature debate need be all warm and fuzzy. There are real issues and real disagreements on how to approach them. Debate is inevitable and healthy.
But I thought of the legislature - indeed of Canadian politics generally - when Obama said it was "time to put away childish things." When he talked about the need for Americans to abandon politics of division and fear and envy.
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them," Obama told the crowds gathered in Washington D.C. "That the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."
Meanwhile, on this side of the border, stale political arguments are all we hear from our leaders. (That might explain why Obama's inauguration attracted more than two million people who wanted to be part of the change. Can you imagine 200,000 people gathering in Ottawa for the first speech by a new prime minister?)
It was not just the usual rhetorical nod to co-operation. When Obama talked about the current economic crisis, he noted the role of "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some."
But he also told all Americans they share the blame because of "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." Not George W. Bush's failure, or Wall Street's or Republicans', but all Americans.
There was no mention of enemies. The message was that the people of the U.S., and the world, are in this together and have many common goals and aspirations and values. They might disagree, strongly, on some moral issues or policy directions. But not on the fundamental principles that have been part of their national life for 230-plus years.
Our politicians see enemies everywhere. Gordon Campbell dismissed people who rallied outside a Liberal party convention to protest some government policies as stupid and representatives of special interests. Glen Clark called people who disagreed with his government's forest policy "enemies of B.C."
In fact, politicians and their political staffs are always on the lookout for "wedge issues." The aim is to split the society into opposing factions in ways that increase their support at the expense of other parties. The issues don't have to be consequential, or the positions legitimate. The best wedge issues play on emotion, particularly fear. That explains the popularity of tough talk on crime or politicians' love of talking about the "powerful interests" behind other parties.
Obama largely shunned such tactics in his campaign and such topics in his inaugural address. He appealed not to peoples' fears or their self-interest, but to their sense of decency and justice. "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," he said. "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."
Instead of ideology, decisions should be based in pragmatism. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."
Obama is a gifted orator. But what lifted his address was not clever writing, or a skilled delivery.
The speech was illuminated by a belief in the energy, intelligence, compassion and shared values of Americans - and indeed of people around the world.
Footnote: A striking feature of Obama's entire political career has been his willingness to listen and accommodate the views of other people, while still working toward goals he considers important. He has proved that approach is not only more decent, but also more effective in bringing change and building support.


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Anonymous said...

Nice Guy Finishes First

So here it is, inauguration day in America. And like everyone else I can't help but get caught up in the moment because honestly, as a Canadian, I did not believe in my lifetime I would see a man like Barack Obama become President of the United States. And not because he's black. No, no, no, no. Because he ran a positive campaign and he actually got elected. - Rick Mercer


Anonymous said...

Gordon Campbell is no Barck Obama. On his first day in office Obama, according to Washington Post:

... signed executive orders to tighten rules on lobbyists, freeze the pay of senior White House staffers, expand releases of documents under the Freedom of Information Act

CF Gordon Campbell:

-Increased (greatly) compensation for senior staffers;

-Shows no inclination to stop the Dobells, Kinsellas, etc. of this world from lobbying, or even complying with the toothless legislation in place

-Hasn't seen an FOI request he tries to avoid or delay responding to.